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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Time to show some guts or go belly-up

They have one more game to make their case. Are the 2004 Red Sox a happy-go-lucky (then suddenly unlucky) pack of frauds who failed to show up for the biggest series of their lives? Or are they full of the stuff that makes a team special and historic?

Sitting on the 11:30 Delta Shuttle from New York to Boston yesterday (Flight 1918 -- and I am not making that up), I wondered about the legacy of these ragtag, self-described "idiots." For the last two months, they've been huggable lugs, teddy bears come to life, who earned the love and faith of their championship-starved Nation. They made you believe that they were different and that this really would be the year.

Now they are face to bearded face with a game that will define them. If the Sox lose to the Yankees again tonight, they effectively are done for the season. No baseball team has recovered from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. Losing to the Yankees without putting up any kind of a fight would earn them a place of disgrace in Boston sports lore. It would dissolve all of the team's accomplishments. It would make them look like cocky, dopey slobs who folded when it counted most.

But it does not have to go down that way. There's plenty of precedent for coming back from an 0-2 deficit. The Sox did it in a five-game series against the Indians (1999) and A's (last year), and the Mets beat the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series after losing the first two games at home. The vaunted Yankees have twice lost a (World) series after winning the first two games. It happened to them in 1955 against Brooklyn and again in 1981 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

So the Nation will be buoyed and confident again if the Red Sox can win tonight and make this a real series. And the Franconamen are capable of turning the series around, even if Curt Schilling doesn't pitch again until Fort Myers. The Sox were 55-26 (.679) at Fenway this year, the second-best home record in baseball. They hit .306 at home, averaging 6.4 runs per game, tops in the majors. They should be able to hit Kevin Brown and Orlando Hernandez (of course, we said that about Jon Lieber), especially at Fenway.

In the meantime, what they have done to their loyal fans borders on criminal. The region has given its heart to the local baseball team, only to have it stomped on yet again.

Even from the grave, Charles Schulz has Lucy yanking the football away again. Fans who pledged never to return after last October (just as they made the same vow in 1986, 1978, and all the other years of heartache) dived headfirst into the themes and schemes of the 2004 Red Sox.

Now this. You Sox fans who have been taunting your Yankee cousins for the last six months have to stand there and take it when the arrogant (and why shouldn't they be?) New Yorkers rub it in your face. At this hour, "Who's Your Daddy?" stands as the definition of this alleged rivalry. The ever clever "Yankees [expletive]" sounds even more pathetic than usual.

Pathetic. That is the operative word. It's up to the Red Sox ballplayers to restore some pride in the Nation. If the Sox produce two more games like we just saw, Boston baseball fans will have to wear bags on their heads any time they enter Yankee territory this winter.

The Yankees have led for every inning of the series. In both games, the only time the score was tied was when it was 0-0 after the Sox went down in the top of the first.

Over the first six innings of the two games, Red Sox batters are a combined 1 for 37. Only two Boston hitters reached base in the first six frames of the two games in New York.

Schilling's ankle injury, which will force him to miss his scheduled Game 5 start at the very least, is simply bad luck and no blame will be assigned when the history is written. And Pedro Martinez continues to pitch well, but not well enough to win against the Yankees.

The numbing numbers: the Sox are 11-20 in games Pedro has started against his daddies, 6-18 since June 2000.

Meanwhile, Pedro's bizarre behavior continues. There's the hair, the "daddy" quote, the 28-inch mascot pal, and the strange midnight confession after Game 2 when he talked about sitting under the mango tree and threw his teammates under the bus ("I can't do anything if we don't score runs") even when he didn't have enough money for the bus.

Here's another thought: If the Red Sox don't win a couple of games this weekend, we may have seen Pedro's last game with the team.

That's what is so disappointing about this situation. In the aftermath of the brainlock by He Who Must Not Be Named, which kept the Red Sox out of the 2003 World Series, the 2004 Boston baseball season was viewed by all as a go-for-broke endeavor. Acquire a stopper and a closer, spend money, let the free agents play hard in their walk years, and trade Nomar if you have to. Go for it.

And just about everyone bought into it. The Nation wanted the Yankees. Merely winning a World Series wasn't enough. The road had to go through the Bronx.

And now the Yankees, a team of consummate professionals, have opened old wounds and once again silenced the Red Sox and their fans.

Tonight is the last chance. There could be anywhere from one to four more games after tonight, but Game 3 will dictate how this Red Sox team will be remembered.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

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